I want to discuss the challenges youth face when exiting a detention facility and propose a more developed way of thinking about this population. I hope that through reference to my personal story I can help community stakeholders identify different ways of providing effective service and provide a voice for the thousands of youth across America who are faced with similar obstacles.
I first made contact with the system when I was about 11 years old. I was picked up for vandalism when out of triggered anger and pain I broke a window of the group home I was living in. For the next decade, I was kept in the system for a range of offenses, then was committed to Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).
As a child, trauma was a part of everyday life, from being a witness to abusive relationships, being sexually/psychically/emotionally abused to not having stability after I was 8 years old.
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Needless to say, by the time I entered the system I did not have the best social skills nor coping mechanisms to understand how I was feeling and how to deal with these conflicting emotions in in a prosocial way.
A big part of my development is taking responsibility for my actions, so though I blamed my mother for everything then, what keeps me going now is the thought that I am in control of my own actions and feelings, and I am the only one in charge of my happiness.
This is an essential concept that I believe should be encouraged not only while incarcerated but through one’s life.
Many obstacles we face we are able to maneuver through, but unexpected situations such as loss of housing, loss of employment and relationship issues can cause us to revert to old coping skills and loss of hope.
Stability is also a central concept when thinking about this population. For me, having had quick access to clean, stable and safe housing laid the foundation for me to then seek employment, pursue education and find a place within society where I can thrive.
Mentorship is critical. I was lucky to have had great mentors in my life. When I was discharged from DJJ, if it weren’t for the financial, emotional and community support that I received I would have probably recidivated.
Roger Chan, previously a public defender and my first mentor, believed in me. As soon as I hit the streets, he gave me a job as assistant to him, the executive director of East Bay Children’s Law Offices. When he gave me a workstation in his office three feet from his desk and personally trained me in legal case preparation, a feeling I never had before engulfed me.
A mixture of belonging, self-worth, confidence and friendship gave me the motivation I needed to keep pushing, especially in difficult circumstances. I still thrive from our interaction to this day.
In 2013, Roger introduced me to Frankie Guzman, who like me had experienced the juvenile justice system and was raised with identical community standards. Frankie and I immediately hit it off over a sushi lunch and he remains a close supporter, friend and supervisor.
It’s relationships like these that make the difference. I can pick up the phone and call Frankie and on numerous occasions when I was stuck, he helped me.
When I didn’t have money to eat, he would invite me over for dinner or give me a few bucks, when I didn’t have dress clothes to do my internships, he would bring me clothes from his trips and lend me stuff. When I was in doubt about my future, he encouraged education and hard work. He didn’t allow me to make excuses for myself nor did he treat me differently because of my issues. But he understood my trauma and I understood his and we are able to work together in a way that I never have with anyone else.
From the beginning, Roger saw my potential and encouraged me to observe three principles: no fighting, go to therapy and get more education. These were essential concepts to hammer into me when I was younger. Eventually I would start to hear his words when I was angry and that acted as a barrier between thought and action.
In the last few years I have surprised myself with my own potential and ability to achieve.
I am now a part of a great network of individuals advocating for system improvements and an eager student.
Last August, I had the privilege to serve as a field representative for state Assemblymember Tony Thurmond and gained invaluable skills. However, Frankie’s consistent encouragement for higher education always left me with a sense of guilt that I wasn’t in school, and eventually college is where I landed.
Community, relationships and education have kept me on a path toward success. The road to readjusting to community standards is tough, and we need every resource available to us in order to see real results. It is not enough to call every now and then and check in, or half-heartedly support someone.
Mentors and friends need to have a real connection to the youth and not judge and point out flaws, but encourage and point out strengths so that we can continue to know and understand that we are equal, that we belong in the community and that we can still have a positive impact on civilization.
I stayed in school until third grade, then never completed a real semester since. A month after I turned 16 I received my GED while incarcerated in an Arizona youth facility. At that moment college became a possibility. Now I am still in community college striving for success.
A more developed way of thinking about reentry is going back to how our elders treated children: by showing them their worth, providing real opportunities to own and build, encouraging values that cannot be learned in a valueless place. By remembering that all children are children and deserve to be nurtured, sheltered, fed, protected and taught.
It is important to keep this at the forefront of your mind when thinking about our youth, whether incarcerated, placed in out-of-home placement or on the streets. The natural motivation we have is to be there for our youth: We must break through barriers to achieve laws that are up to date to ensure youth are receiving effective services.
Deangelo Cortijo, a student at Chabot College and former field representative with the California State Assembly, has experienced both the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. He is on the Board of State and Community Correction’s Executive Steering Committee for the California Gang Reduction, Intervention and Prevention grant.